The fundamental premise of product-led growth is that product is the main driver of a go-to-market journey that pushes users to find, adopt, and use your product. As a go-to-market strategy, product-led growth works really well for user-centric companies.

However, the reality is that the process of finding, adopting, onboarding, and championing software doesn’t happen in a bubble between you and your user. People are naturally advice-seeking beings, which means that at every step of the process, even before they’ve even started looking for your tool, they’re soliciting external input. We are constantly getting input from friends, colleagues, and strangers on the internet on what we should eat, how we should dress, and where we should live. This holds true for buying software too.

Community-led growth acts as a multiplier on top of product-led growth. By actively facilitating user interactions, and providing value past the product itself, community-led growth allows a company to have a stronger pulse on its customer pipeline, feature requests, and real-time support, all while enabling users to get the most out of their product. These users in turn become champions, creating a flywheel of active members strengthening the community.

What we think product-led growth + community-led growth looks like:

What product-led + community-led growth actually looks like:

So Why Now?

Like many aspects of technology, COVID has acted as an accelerant for community-led growth as people more than ever feel the need to find a sense of belonging online. However, community-led growth has been a long time coming. In this world of SaaS fragmentation, users are overwhelmed by choice, and look to influencers to choose tools; meanwhile, the number of communication and sharing channels has also increased. Long gone are the days when a buyer would show up to a sales call not knowing what they’re looking for; buyers are coming to the table with a much clearer opinion on the tools available.

In the sales-driven world, you have to trust the salesperson.
In a product-led growth world, you trust yourself to choose the best product.
In a community-led growth world, buyers turn to their community of friends and peers for guidance.

Why every founder should think about community-led growth

🤝 Create a symbiotic relationship with users:

Community-led growth allows you to create something more aspirational for your users — a movement that they can be a part of that revolves around topics of interest to them. In doing so, you’re delivering value beyond your own product, and, naturally, start building what will become a symbiotic relationship with your users.

🧑‍🎓 Become a thought leader in your market:

Once you’ve gotten to know and understand your community, you start facilitating the content and services it most needs. A well-managed community answers each other’s questions in the middle of the night, troubleshoots with peers, and shares content about best practices, allowing you to think of new solutions you might not have otherwise. This thought leadership eventually becomes your company brand.

✍️ Real-time insights and actionable responses

Actively managing your community gives your sales team a strong pipeline of engaged potential customers — in many cases, the first point of contact with a company could be through a community channel. Customer support benefits from being able to answer issues in real-time, while becoming leaner and decreasing the number of tickets thanks to peer-to-peer responses. Product teams are also able to see what users are getting wrong, what requests are in the pipeline, and generally what feedback they have.

The community-led growth playbook

Communities are typically started by bringing users together on a community platform, and over time expanding the ecosystem through multiple community channels (events, job boards, newsletters, etc). No matter the size, a well-engaged community needs to be actively managed — it takes time, 1x1 conversations, personalization, and leadership. The role of ‘Head of Community’ will grow in relevance as the community ecosystem expands.

“It doesn’t matter how excellent the community tool is, if the person running the community doesn’t make it feel like a community, it won’t work. Throwing people into a Slack group chat isn’t building a community.”
- Sarah Wood, Head of Growth & Community at Upstream

While there is no playbook (yet) on how to optimize community-led growth, there are 4 primary strategies that companies have successfully mixed and matched to create communities with thousands of active participants:

🪢 Start by creating a community of practice

This is where most of the community ‘lives’, the central hub to get a view of most members and content (both company, and user-generated). While Slack has been an obvious starting place to create a community, the world of community-enabling SaaS is growing exponentially. Community platforms are becoming more niche and function-specific to the type of community and mode of interaction you’re optimizing for: whether that be open-source developer-focused, membership-driven, voice, events, chat-focused, etc.

So, where can community builders go today to better understand not just what’s happening in their communities, but the methodologies and philosophies behind building practice-based communities in the first place?

In broad terms, hubs like CMX help community leaders forge connections. Community programs like Uncommon are focused on sharing learnings from experts with a depth of experience in the community space. Through newsletters and events, it can connect community builders in a way that co-empowers peers to nurture and grow communities of practice.

Regardless of the product, there are two primary types of company-led community:

  • Community of product: Built around your product specifically, this primarily serves as a space for users to ask questions about your product, share insights with each other, and stay connected with the company.
  • Community of practice: The idea of a community of practice was coined by Anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning. A community of practice ties together members who share the common goal of learning about a specific field. Applied to the tech world, we’ve started seeing communities of practice grow significantly.

Companies are embracing the idea of building something that spans larger than their own product, and instead aims to include all people within a role or space. This leads to a much larger community that is initially less focused on your specific product: it’s up to the community manager and sales team to elegantly make sure to engage about your product use cases and reach out to potential users directly when appropriate.

"Every time we do something with our community, we ask ourselves 'will this be valuable to our RevOps community?' If the answer is no, then we simply don’t do it. This has allowed us to grow our community from 0 to 1k+ members in 90 days, build lasting relationships, and keep a pulse on challenges they are having, which is instrumental in our product development efforts."
- Matthew Volm, CEO Funl / RevOps Co-Op

🏅 Reward your best champions with acknowledgment

Some businesses have successfully created a “certification” program as an incentive for community members to contribute content, and in turn, become a proponent of your product. In the most highly effective of cases, you’ve created a ‘free’ salesperson, a radical believer in your product, who in return receives personal professional validation that can be career-defining (and for example, they would display the certification proudly on their resume or LinkedIn). The certification program is not easy to execute, as it relies on a balance between not diluting its value while creating enough interest and buzz to attract top talent.

Advocate communities: A product marketer’s secret weapon
Alex Ruddock, Product Marketing Manager at Influitive, discusses how advocate communities can be a product marketer’s secret weapon.

👥 Include your stakeholders in company content

Content marketing isn’t new to anyone, but what is changing is the role that users have in creating and participating in the content. This has a double impact: first is the opportunity to “educate” your users on the market you’re operating in, or the many use cases your tool has; the second is the network effect created by expanding your circle of ‘creators’. The two primary mediums are:

Podcasts — More and more companies are starting podcasts around their market or specific tool, and bringing on users/experts in the space for genuine thought partnership.

Blog posts/newsletters: Strong community-led content marketing is when companies interview key stakeholders and encourage their users to contribute content about how they best use their product (in many of the “Certificate” examples, writing a blog post is a must).

💻 Facilitate user-generated templates and tutorials

Lastly, engaging your community often includes giving them the instructions, ideas, and templates to succeed at the product. However, at a certain scale, the amount of content that needs to be created outpaces the velocity at which you can generate it. With enough product love, your users might come to the rescue and start sharing these tutorials themselves (that’s a great sign).

If people are posting DIY YouTube videos on how to use your product, you should probably build a community around this. Creating a space for them to publicly share these insights not only encourages them to create more but centralizes a ‘repository’ for your prospects.

With great community comes great responsibility

The wave of companies that enable community-led growth are going to come from:

Next-gen community platforms...

New community platforms with differentiated use cases, higher functionality around content sharing, knowledge repositories, event planning, user onboarding, segmentation, Q&A, and much more. Meanwhile, large existing platforms will seek to expand their audience even inorganically.

...and community data analytics

Insight-mining, platform-agnostic software that integrates with all your community endpoints, and drives actionable workflows for your sales, success, support teams, product teams, etc. Mining for community data is a non-trivial problem, as there are dozens of sources to pull from, each with a large scale of data points, and where each user goes by a different name, has different types of behavior, and in many cases doesn’t communicate complete information. However, it’s also a critical part of getting value from your community. The metrics you start tracking through these tools will be invaluable as you grow these channels.

To wrap up

Companies must take an active role in making community engagement a part of their company culture and identity. Differentiating yourself across the many communities a user is likely to be a part of isn’t going to be easy, but it could make a serious impact on your GTM when managed effectively.

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